Thou shalt not
Britain has not only got a new government, but something approaching a new religion. It is a pseudo-religion that began to emerge under the old Tory regime, but can now take to the highest pulpits in the land in the hands of New Labour. And the central message of the sermon for today is Thou Shalt Not.
Thou shalt not smoke, eat or drink what you like; have a gun, a knife or a wild sex life; watch, read or download what you want; bring up your children as you see best; use what words, gestures or jokes you choose; or in any other way think for yourself.
It is not just that Blair's cabinet are a collection of churchy killjoys (although most of them are). The new religion has stepped in to fill the gap in public life created by the demise of the old politics.
The general election campaign confirmed that no political party today has a bold vision of how to improve society. Instead all sides now agree that there is no alternative to the market system, and no argument with the economic orthodoxy dictated by the financiers in the City and the Bank of England.
In which case, what exactly is it that Tony 'Time for a change' Blair can change? How can the new government address the widespread anxieties and insecurities of the age?
If social change and progress are off the agenda, all that remains is to try to alter things at the level of the individual, to control society by regulating how people behave. That is a major reason why, instead of a debate about policies and programmes for improving public life, so much discussion today focuses on our private affairs. It is why politicians and media commentators are falling over themselves to deliver moral sermons about how we ought to live our lives.
The new religion is moralising nineties-style - more about parenting classes and health promotion campaigns than fire and brimstone - but it is just as restrictive and sanctimonious as old-fashioned bible bashing. This is the natural territory of New Labour's neo-puritans, who do not have a libertarian bone in their bodies.
As we noted during the election campaign, instead of the politics of right and left we now have to contend with the pieties of right and wrong. Every issue, it seems, is being redefined as a simple moral question of good and evil. New Labour's plans for government read like a hit-list of laws aimed against the alleged evils of modern society: evil cigarettes, evil children, evil parents, evil neighbours, evil words, evil handguns, evil squeegee merchants. The holier-than-thou temper of politics today is summed up by the entry into parliament (thanks to New Labour and Lib Dem support) of BBC journalist Martin Bell, who basically stood for election as Snow White against the wicked witch.
As well as legitimising an authoritarian system of social controls and state regulation of personal behaviour, the new religion also has serious implications for democracy. New Labour claims to stand for no group in particular, but to represent something called the Greater Good. New Labour's moral mission to clean up politics rests upon the assumption that most people are basically greedy and selfish and cannot be trusted to put the good of the community before their own interests. This is what lies behind the preoccupation with 'sleaze'. The message is that people should not be involved in politics to represent particular interests, but to uphold the Greater Good of all.
The problem is, however, that democracy has always been a contest between parties which represent competing interests. It is hard to think of one important issue on which you could secure the universal agreement of 'the community'. What is now condemned as greed, selfishness, corruption and sleaze used to be called standing up for yourself, or for your class, or for whichever group you aligned yourself with. That contest is the lifeblood of democratic politics, and has been a motor of social progress.
By contrast, those who preach the need for a higher morality today seek to separate themselves from the base urges of the greedy masses. Like the priesthood of old, if they are to uphold the faith they feel the need to be insulated against the selfish demands of the sinful mob below. Which means that democratic accountability is out. Instead, we can expect to see New Labour concentrating more power in the hands of appointed 'experts' - that is, those who are far enough removed from the madding crowd to know what is best for the rest of us.
In the first few days after its election, New Labour handed over control of financial policy to the governor of the Bank of England, made the chairman of BP a trade minister, and announced that Lord Nolan would be a permanent policeman of elected MPs. Tony Blair has also pledged to appoint a US-style drug czar, and reportedly took the Dunblane parents into the cabinet room to ask them to ensure that home office ministers kept to the right line on gun control.
This collection of bankers, businessmen, law lords, officials and high profile victims collected a grand total of nil votes in the general election. Yet as guardians of the new moral code, able to rise above the supposedly sleazy interests of democratic politics, they will exercise more power in Blair's Britain than almost anybody who was elected.
IF YOU WERE THINKING OF PROTESTING
against any of these trends, you have a problem. The new religion enforces a strict orthodoxy on what can and cannot be discussed. Thou shalt not make controversial statements, express strong opinions or otherwise offend against the new moral code. The bans and restrictions placed upon political broadcasts by the far-right, anti-abortionists and Irish republicans during the election campaign, along with Blair's plans to sterilise debate during prime minister's question time, give a flavour of what we can expect. There is no place for such a dangerous concept as free speech for all in Blair's campaign to clean up Britain.
Those who cross the line and step outside the increasingly narrow terms of 'legitimate debate' can expect to be excommunicated as heretics. Those who even question the rigid moral framework of good and evil imposed on issues from Dunblane to Bosnia can expect to be branded as blasphemers. That is already the frequent experience of LM magazine.
The appeal of the new religion is that it keys into the deep mood of cynicism in society today. It chimes in with the widespread loss of faith in the human potential, which has in turn created a willingness to question basic human motives such as self-interest and basic civilised values such as democracy and freedom. Above all, the new religious creed of Thou Shalt Not is rooted in the contemporary prejudice that we are all weaklings in need of protection and guidance; that in the words of the actor Gary Oldman during the recent Cannes festival, 'We are a lot sicker than we think we are. Most people need therapy'.
In fact what 'most people need' is not therapy, but freedom. The freedom to live without having their aspirations and passions continually constrained by the new moral army of experts, policemen and caring professionals. As James Heartfield argues elsewhere in this issue of LM, freedom from the state has always been a prerequisite for liberation and emancipation. And never more so than today.
That is why LM is making a stand for free speech, by launching the Fight for the Right to be Offensive. The cause of freedom demands that we insist upon our right to blaspheme against religions new and old, to speak the truth as we find it without worrying about offending public opinion, and to refuse to bend the knee before the inquisitors of the new religion.
When Tony Blair told the first post-election meeting of his MPs that New Labour were not the masters, but the people's servants, you knew we were in for a hard time. It was the false humility of a religious leader who holds all the real power in his hands, like a Pope kissing the dirt before telling the assembled multitude how they should live. Make no mistake, they are our masters, and they are going to let us know it. Anybody with any illusions to the contrary will not know what hit them as Tony Blair's commandments ring around the nation in the months ahead.
Volunteers for the alliance of amoral, offensive, blasphemous heretics, one step forward.
The fight for the right to be offensive
We might still have the formal right to free speech. But that can mean nothing unless we can exercise the right to be offensive.
Today it seems as if anything that can be adjudged offensive either to 'decent people' or to some delicate minority it can automatically be ruled out of order. Offensive opinions, language, gestures, films, books, art, TV shows, adverts and jokes have all been censored, cut, punished or withdrawn in order to protect public sensibilities.
Yet it is surely only the controversial and the offensive that we need worry about protecting. The mainstream and the conventional can look after itself.
Since Galileo was convicted of heresy for insisting that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe, the heralds of the new have always been seen as offensive. Every social or scientific advance worth having, from contraception and the railways to votes for women and the abolition of slavery, began by outraging the conventions of its time.
Offending the set prejudices of public opinion has always been the first step towards popularising a more forward-looking outlook. If a few had not insisted upon their right to be offensive, humanity might have nice manners but it would still be somewhere in the caves.
In the stultifying atmosphere of today, there is an especially pressing need for a full discussion of possible alternatives for a society which seems to be at a dead-end. Yet at the moment we require open minds, the insecure are seeking to close down debate, control what can be said and outlaw anything 'extreme' or 'offensive'.
In response to this dire state of affairs, it is time for those of us who are concerned about freedom and democratic debate to insist upon our right to tell it like it is, to bust every social taboo, to blaspheme in the face of all religiosity and outrage public opinion. In short, we should fight for the right to be offensive.
Free speech should not be constrained either by bans, libel laws or 'responsible' self-censorship. In a world of adults, we should expect to be able to speak for ourselves, to judge for ourselves and to stand up for ourselves. Anything less is an offence against freedom.
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997